You are walking down a busy street and trip on an uneven sidewalk. Or you are looking at old photographs and unearth one from when you were in active addiction, wearing a party hat that says, KISS ME, I’M IRISH. Or, as an adult, your mother says something about your lack of progress at work, and it sends you back to feelings of inadequacy from childhood. Your inner voice tells you that you have done something “wrong,” “clumsy,” or “shameful.”
Self-conscious emotions relate to how we feel about ourselves and our consciousness of how others react to us. Further, the little voice that tells us we are “clumsy” or “fabulous” is called our “inner monologue” or “self-talk.” And paying attention to that voice can be crucial for identifying internalized shame and other self-conscious emotions. The self-conscious emotions discussed in this article, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation, are often used synonymously, although they are different.
Why are they called “self-conscious” emotions? To be self-conscious implies an ability to self-reflect and self-evaluate. Which, by nature, requires a sense of self, a set of values and standards, and the ability to compare oneself to others. Self-conscious emotions allow us to relate to and judge ourselves against those around us. Additionally, these emotions make us aware of how other people perceive us.
Definitions from the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary:
n. A highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion arising from the sense of something dishonorable, immodest, or indecorous in one’s conduct or circumstances.
Shame is typically characterized by withdrawal from social intercourse. For example, hiding or distracting the attention of another from one’s shameful action can profoundly affect psychological adjustment and interpersonal relationships. Shame motivates avoidance behavior but also defensive retaliatory anger.
n. A self-conscious emotion characterized by a painful appraisal of having done (or thought) something wrong.
Guilt often elicits a readiness to take action designed to undo or mitigate this wrong. However, it is distinct from shame, in which there is the additional intense fear of one’s deeds being publicly exposed to judgment or ridicule.
n. A self-conscious emotion in which a person feels awkward or flustered in other people’s company or because of the attention of others.
Embarrassment happens when we are observed in actions subject to mild disapproval from others. It often has an element of self-deprecating humor. And it is typically characterized by nervous laughter, a shy smile, or blushing.
n. A self-conscious emotion, similar to shame, that results from being disgraced or criticized.
Humiliation can be a very intense, painful, negative emotion. Characteristics include unwanted, negative public exposure or a threat to one’s identity. Studies show that the most intense emotional reactions to public insults happened when an audience laughed or did not offer support.
Shame – the Most Harmful Self-Conscious Emotion
It is important to pay attention to our shame because it is the most detrimental emotion we experience. Shame doesn’t motivate us to do better – quite the opposite. Instead, shame triggers lowered self-esteem and prompts behaviors that reinforce a negative self-image.
Shame is a universal emotion, which means that as long as you are capable of experiencing emotions, you’ve experienced shame.
As a self-conscious emotion, shame incorporates the whole self and is often associated with feeling unwanted, inadequate, or unworthy of love. When we experience shame, it is also common to experience physiological symptoms. A dry mouth, the feeling that time is slowing down, a racing heart, twitching, or tunnel vision – similar to symptoms that occur when we have a flight-fight-freeze response to something scary or traumatic. It’s worth noting that each person responds differently to shame.
What is the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?
Dr. Brené Brown is a leading researcher and an expert in shame, vulnerability, courage, and authenticity. Brown says, “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is I am bad; Guilt is I did something bad.”
Psychological research studies have consistently demonstrated a correlation between shame and various mental health conditions, including substance use, depression, eating disorders, aggression, low self-esteem, and isolation. On the other hand, evidence has shown guilt to be inversely related to those problems – indeed, guilt is correlated with motivation to change.
How Do Embarrassment and Humiliation Tie In?
The words “humiliation” and “embarrassment” are often used interchangeably. But the characteristics of embarrassment are that it’s fleeting, and we aren’t alone; others have also been there. Humiliation, however, feels lasting, solitary, and unworthy. In addition, humiliation often stimulates the same physiological responses as shame (rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms). But with humiliation, we understand it is unmerited. Embarrassment is brought on by ourselves, whereas others bring on humiliation.
How To Reduce Feelings of Shame
Step 1: Try to be aware of and pay attention to your negative self-talk. We cannot address our internalized shame if we are unaware of it or unable to identify it.
Step 2: Identify whether your negative self-talk is concentrated on your behavior (guilt) or your whole self (shame). Work to recognize when you feel like you are not enough.
Step 3: If you recognize that you are experiencing shame, attempt to identify your triggers. Just ask yourself questions. Who have I felt this way around? What was I doing? What was going on when I felt this way? When did I feel this way? Where was I? Why might I feel shame about that?
Step 4: This part is critical. Brown’s research has revealed that talking about it is the most powerful anecdote for reducing feelings of shame. You must tell your story to someone you trust who is willing to practice vulnerability and will meet you with empathy.
Step 5 (Bonus): Practice positive self-talk!
When you catch that voice in your head putting you down, insulting you, or leading you to a fight, flight or freeze response – turn it around. For example, instead of saying, “I haven’t accomplished enough,” say something positive. “I’ll try to do better next time.” Or say, “I have many accomplishments, and there is plenty of time to set and reach future goals.”
Have you heard that forcing a smile can trick your brain into making you feel happier? Well, several research studies have proved this to be true. So, if we can trick our brain by faking a smile, shouldn’t playing the fake-it-till-you-make-it self-talk card have some benefits?
How Does Vulnerability Help With Shame and Self-Conscious Emotions?
Working on addressing and reducing our own internalized shame is not a walk in the park. It might sound simple – share your feelings of shame with someone you trust. But we all know that some things are easier said than done. Here’s the cold-hard truth. If you don’t practice vulnerability, your shame isn’t going anywhere. Granted, practicing vulnerability is uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes even anxiety-provoking. Vulnerability is our friend who feels more like a frenemy. Working with a therapist is often the best way to share feelings.
What does it mean to be vulnerable? Many people think being vulnerable means you are exposed, weak, inadequate, or defenseless. However, people who practice vulnerability are usually courageous, brave, and often more resilient for doing so. Practicing vulnerability means revealing your authentic self. Flaws, mistakes, regrets, secrets and all.
Vulnerability is a sincere, honest, and meaningful expression of your deepest thoughts and feelings to someone you trust. The evidence is irrefutable, human beings are hard-wired for connection. And the driving force behind connection is vulnerability. Without vulnerability, it is not possible to build healthy connections with others.
At Sanford Behavioral Health, we pride ourselves on fostering a safe and supportive environment where individuals can begin their healing process, recover, and ultimately thrive in life. So, go out there and be brave. Be vulnerable. Create meaningful connections with others (even if the connections are virtual). And pay attention to your self-talk. Train your inner-monologue to sound more like talking to someone you love and respect. Understand the difference between shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. And be patient and kind to yourself. Only share your story with someone who has earned the right to hear it.
Lastly, at the end of each day remind yourself, you will never be “not enough.”